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Shahd Al Shammari, Head above WaterReflections on Illness, London: Neem Tree Press, 2022, 208 p.

Marion Breteau
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London: Neem Tree Press, 208 p.

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  • 1 Adams, Jones and Ellis, 2015, p. 2.
  • 2 Collins, 2017, p.220.
  • 3 « 2 Kuwaiti Female Academics Use Research to Defend Rights of the Marginalised », Al-Fanar Media, 3 (...)

1Shahd Al Shammari is a Professor of English Literature at the Gulf University for Science and Technology of Kuwait. She is also a respected non-fictional writer whose books address gender and ability issues, all themes that echo throughout her new book Head above WaterReflections on Illness. The work is organized in autobiographical style, or what the author describes as a “creative non-fiction” (p. 6). Her story intersects across the spectrum of Kuwait's modern history, migration and dislocation, academic careers, illness, and death to narrow her focus on what is left: the body, “a container that we place our traumas in” (p. 17). Her book is not intended to be a scientific treatment but rather inscribed as an autoethnographic reflection, a first among Kuwaiti writers. This form of writing relies on the author’s own illness narrative to further illustrate larger and more structural social issues, and is often employed to expose social injustice1 and efforts to “make life better”2. Autoethnography is frequently used in feminist scholarship taking intersectional perspectives; it is a method used by Al Shammari in her previous works but expresses full meaning in Head above Water3.

2Since the age of 18, Shahd Al Shammari suffers from multiple sclerosis, which becomes subject to social expectations and life challenges, multiple too. Successively, she begins her book with the questions of her experiences, such as: what is it to be a woman, holding a male accessory that is the cane? What is it to find one’s body in the center of attention in a patriarchal society that marks women’s lives by the prevalence of modesty? How does it feel to be labeled “disabled”, in a work environment that holds this implicit demand to do more than one might be able to do as a woman (or rather, as a non-disabled woman)? What is it like to be unable to write, when this is the foundation of one’s existence and career? What is it, eventually, to present “the result of years of framing an illness narrative” (p. 167) and restitute such intimate concerns, in the form of a book? We particularly appreciated the titles of the sub-chapters, each named by the letters that make up the words “one”, “two”, “three” and “four” in reference to the chapter numbers, which immediately sets the tone of the narrative, both humble and thoughtful, something that is confirmed page after page in a very sincere manner.

3The first chapter on the history of Al Shammari’s maternal grandmother, a woman of Palestinian origin, explores the source of her relationship to her body. First exiled to Kuwait as a child, her grandmother migrated back to Palestine following the expulsions carried out by Kuwait during the first Gulf War, to ultimately die of cancer. Comparing the trajectory of her grandmother to her own, the author points out how these different stages of life affect the body, the only substance that remains throughout the years. As long as it was possible for her to move, her grandmother was displaced from one territory to another, to then have her mobility taken away by age and illness. The author then questions generational differences that she crosses through the lenses of gender when she asks: “Aren’t all stories always leading up to this moment in your narrative where you go from being a single woman to a married woman?” (p. 16). The author similarly interrogates the tight relation between gender and ability through the origins of her father’s beauty standards as a Kuwaiti Bedouin. According to them, an ill woman is not desirable, as she “poisons the healthy bloodline” (p. 48). As a disabled person her femininity becomes synonym for disease that defies the tribal order (ibid.). 

4Al Shammari further illustrates her illness through discussions with one of her students. By comparing herself to her, she draws lines between mental distress when being a student and physical disability that respectively affect the two protagonists. The author vividly describes a touching examination of her impossibility to hold a pen, an irony of fate for a scholar and a writer. The author could have, as other writers did, dramatized and fantasized it; on the contrary, this detail, as many others in her book, remains mentioned very humbly in the whirlpool of her concerns on death, and her progressive feeling of loneliness in a body that does not react anymore. This experience, which she calls “random disability” (p. 40), expresses how a body can be balanced between different categories of illness without totally embracing its common understanding. By describing the slow process of becoming disabled, Al Shammari delves into her changing femininity from adolescence, which is determined by social expectations she cannot satisfy, to the point of feeling like a liar when she is reproached for attracting attention on purpose. Whatever she does brings her back to what is expected from her as a young woman who builds her gender by negation and through the lens of medical language. 

5In the third chapter, Al Shammari explores her gradual discovery of the academic world from her first years as a student. These are complicated because, physically, it is about being able to access the classroom, get a parking space, and just as importantly, carry a book in her hands, be able to express herself orally and in writing, something today she remembers every time she watches her students work or compose their exams. She recalls the pain, the rumors, but also the shame of not loving herself. Her parents are supportive, and her father compares her to a warrior, again blurring the lines of gender roles. After traumatic episodes in the medical ward, she tries to put into words her fears and imaginations of death, which is probably one of the most touching parts of the book. Here, she finds her grandmother as another support, who shares stories she asks to be taken only as examples of nightmares rather than realities. We are told the story of Danah, who fell in love with a woman before committing suicide; and of a man, a romantic poet who “wasn’t macho enough” (p. 84). All these characters share the same traits, that is, bodies that do not correspond to the heteronormative standards of their society, bodies that “couldn’t house” them and rather are filled with fear. 

6As time goes by, Al Shammari’s body is now subject to hormonal imbalance. As she gains weight, she also feels like a “fraud” “under the male gaze” (p. 89), while her mouth muscles do not react as much as they would before, giving her a droopy smile. When the man she meets at the support group proposes to her, Shahd Al Shammari prevents herself from dreaming, imagining herself powerless and unable to satisfy any demand that marital life would imply. This romance, which remains between the walls of the hospital, makes her realize that illness affected her own femininity as much as the masculinity of her significant other, that her entourage deems insufficient to satisfy his role as a husband, or simply as a man, because of his illness.

7Like many Kuwaiti youths, Al Shammari completed her graduate studies in England, a country she thought of only through fiction so far. Her stay ends up hindering the perception of her homeland. There, she learns what it means to be an Arab in the eyes of the prior colonizer, while gender is treated differently (no priority for women, no special right to be given a seat in public transportation for example). She also discovers what independence and exile would mean, reinforcing ambivalent sentiments towards her own country. Living in England does not only influence her life and approach to it, but also her doctoral research topic, which revolves around madness and gender. The shaping of her femininity then connects with such milestone classical writers as Virginia Woolf. They help her consider her voice as a woman and all other aspects that are subject to being invisible such as her disability, as legitimate and empowering. Going back to Kuwait and starting her career as a university professor, Al Shammari experiences the professional world, which she depicts as the experience of a “politics of love” (p. 126), that is, a patient emotional labor as the woman she is. These politics of labor address both the very sensitive aspect of her work and relations with her students, but also the support gained from her entourage, which is needed to withstand criticisms she may receive at work. Indeed, being a woman, young and inexperienced, and with a disability, does not necessarily appeal to all her male students, something that appears between the lines as a culture shock within her own society.

  • 4 Al Shammari and Ghabra, 2020, p. 168.

8More than simply restituting a picture of what is it to be both ill and a woman in what she elsewhere described as a “collectivist”4 society, this book is a witness of the thaumaturgical nature of literature, and can be considered a reflection on sexism and ableism. It is by the very means of battles, misunderstandings, deceptions, and overall ordinary injustice that qualifies contemporary Kuwait that she shapes her intimacy. Avoiding this injustice is impossible, but finding a new role, that of “professor”, and teaching to make a change in new generations’ minds, through literature, hence fiction, can be a solution for resilience (p. 101). However, academia, which also resonates with discipline and the capacity to produce, is not more welcoming for disabled people or women, may it please its community to admit it or not. 

9Although this book contains autobiographical content, it is important to note the author's self-awareness of her theoretical influences in gender studies. Be it Judith Butler or Arundhati Roy, these references appear in the context of their evocation, in Al Shammari’s different life episodes. This allows her to structure her argument in a conscious, yet humble manner. It is also written in an accessible way and can serve as an initiation to disability studies, which remain underdeveloped in social sciences. Although the book does not aim at being inscribed in cultural studies, it appears as a reflexive witness of contemporary Gulfian culture and society, and an evident mastering of autoethnography. It is, indeed, more a call for sociological reflection rather than a simple piece of literature, of which one can only be curious about its reception by the local readership in Kuwait and beyond.

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Al Shammari Shahd, 2022, Head above WaterReflections on Illness, London, Neem Tree Press.

Al Shammari Shahd, Ghabra Haneen, 2020, “Microaggressions in Flux: Whiteness, Disability and Masculinity in Academia”, in: Shinsuke Eguchi, Shadee Abdi, Bernadette Marie Calafell, De-Whitening Intersectionality. Race, Intercultural Communication, and Politics, p. 159-180.

Collins Devin, 2017, “The Art of Faking a Smile: A Layered Account of Mental Illness and/in Relating”, in: Sandra L. Pensoneau-Conway, Tony E. Adams and Derek M. Bolen, 2017, Doing Autoethnography, Rotterdam, Boston, Taipei, Sense Publishers, p. 217-227.

Tony E. Adams, Holman Jones Stacy, Ellis Carolyn, 2015, Autoethnography, Oxford University Press.

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1 Adams, Jones and Ellis, 2015, p. 2.

2 Collins, 2017, p.220.

3 « 2 Kuwaiti Female Academics Use Research to Defend Rights of the Marginalised », Al-Fanar Media, 3 January 2022, online. URL:

4 Al Shammari and Ghabra, 2020, p. 168.

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Marion Breteau, « Shahd Al Shammari, Head above WaterReflections on Illness, London: Neem Tree Press, 2022, 208 p. », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marion Breteau

American University of Kuwait, CEFREPA Kuwait

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